Of Death, Step-Parents, Displaced Parents and Blends.

As I sit to write this I can feel that sense of ‘do you have a right?’ sitting in the far reaches of the right side of my head. Crazy right? I’m a counsellor; feelings just are. But it really, really, really is never that simple. (Lots of ‘reallys’ and I meant every one).

You would gather that parts of me are in this story. And parts are clients. And parts are family – in all it’s forms.

When we think of step parents and blended families our mind goes to the two ‘parents’ in a home with children. But there are many far reaching effects of blended families for years to come . This short post is about one seldom thought of.

Imagine you have a step-dad from the age of 4 until you are 19 (when he leaves and starts another family). And imagine you are older and it is some 30-40 years later and he dies. My question is – what is your allocation of ‘ the right to grieve’?

If it’s your Mum or your Dad, your allocation of the right to grieve is obvious; it is not questioned. Or at least it’s not questioned if your Mum and Dad are still together.

If it is your step parent (and your parents stayed together until that step parent died) then a little nudge for allocation might be needed – like ‘He was my Dad from when I was 11 to now’. And Voila! – its kind of explainable and your grief is recognized; some may even say – understood.

But if your Step Dad or your Dad went on to have a whole new family the displacement is surreal. Funerals are organized by his ‘now family. And you watch the forward motion of social grief, with all it’s condolences and photographs and memories, steadfastly roll forward with little or no recognition of the 10 or 15 years of his life that you were pivotal in.

This displacement comes up in lots of situations but sadly (and understandably) those at the front of the line in the ‘right to grieve’ are tied up in their own grief – they may even feel they have more ownership of that grief.

So spare a thought for the son in law who only came on the scene 10 years ago when the rest of the family have been around for 40 years and gets none of the ‘I’m so sorry for your loss’…. Or for the daughter who sits at her fathers funeral, where she knows no-one and listens to stories all about her fathers new life and nothing about herself in his old.

If you are lucky – someone in their new life lets you in….just a little. It doesn’t stop the feeling of displacement. It doesn’t stop the questions about the ‘right to grieve’. But it helps.

Look around at Funerals. It takes nothing away from you to acknowledge those left holding she shortest ‘right to grieve’ straw.

Goodbye Dad

On a morning walk during the last school holidays, I had the opportunity to see suburbia in its early buzz. And most of what I saw was good. Some pretty gardens with happy flowers, teddy bears still peeking out of a few windows, people coming out to check the mailbox and waving hello. But I also saw something but made me feel sad. Three SUVs pulling up at separate curbs – their engines humming outside nicely groomed houses. None of the driver’s turned their engines off. Only one of the drivers got out of this car. No-one was waiting on the curb or came out to greet them. And overflowing out of the passenger doors …children, all of them around school age carrying little cases or backpacks shouting… “Goodbye Dad”… several of them running back to try to give a final hug.

These were not children being dropped off for a weekend sleepover with a friend. These children were most likely being dropped off between a separated Mum and Dad. How did I know? A number of things were obvious like the cases on their back (and several other items dragged from the car) but also the tone of the goodbye to Dad was not the kind that says I will see you later in the day.

We are bringing up generations of children who’s normal is being split between homes with different rules and different atmospheres. Not for them any cozy Friday night movie nights with Mum and Dad together making the world secure.

I felt sad. Mainly I felt sad because I knew how torn most of these children would be feeling and that it was most likely that at times they were forced to choose out loud or in their own head which of their parents was the most reliable or lovable; children growing up too soon.

I believe relationships can thrive. I believe in the power of commitment hard work and at times professional intervention to facilitate a way through. And I believe that even if couples choose not to stay together there is still the ability to role model what respectful and caring relationships look like in the face of separation. And that would include – Dads getting out of their cars and Mums coming out on the curb to greet the arrival. When children step out of that car they step onto the wobbly bridge that spans no mans land. The least parents can do is swallow their own hurts/pride/anger/indifference and hold their children’s hand until they get to the other side.

Is your Relationship worth it?

I believe relationships are worth the effort. If there are two willing hearts, who are willing to do the hard work, relationships can be wonderful.

But what does hard work in a relationship even mean?

We think of hard work as ‘putting our back into it’ or working long hours. But I think hard work in a relationship looks a lot more like this :

  • Making an effort even though you don’t feel like it (getting up and making that cup of tea or doing the dishes even though wasn’t your turn or getting up in the middle of the night to heat the heat pack and bring the panadol even though you are in pain yourself or listening to the same old work story!).
  • Feeling, angry, frustrated, misunderstood, unappreciated, unseen and lonely sometimes.
  • Biting our tongue when we know the moment is not right (even though we are!). 
  • Going without what we need at times because we know the other person cannot see what we need or is unable to give it in that moment.
  • Negotiating and renegotiating and giving up some of the things but we would really like. 
  • Giving up a few of our wants and possibly even a few of our dreams along the way.
  • Finding ways to love or accept what our partner loves.
  • Being kind, when kindness is the farthest away from our instinct.

And hard work in a relationship is also:

  • Looking after ourselves (sleep, nutrition, time to ourselves, hobbies and friends away from the relationship).
  • Setting and respecting our boundaries.
  • Knowing our limits and ourselves.
  • Working on ourselves as individuals

And now that I have shared a smidgen of how I believe hard work in a relationship looks .. . Tell me….

Are you ready to roll up your sleeves, jump in with both feet and give it all you’ve got?

If you would like my valued opinion: You reap what you sew. It’s totally worth it.

What if love’s lost behind words we can never find?

Love lost behind

‘What about now? What about today?
What if you’re making me all that I was meant to be?
What if our love never went away?
What if it’s lost behind words we could never find?
Baby, before it’s too late, what about now?’

Words unspoken and words spoken is, I believe, the number one reason relationships fail. And of course, the work that I do is to directly work on this.

Whilst it’s true that hurtful things said can never be taken away, sometimes understanding the motivation for saying them can dull or even remove that hurt. And whilst feeling as if we are getting little response from our partner can make us feel unwanted, when we understand the dynamics of our communication we can better reach each other.

In relationships we tend to mostly exist in a surface loop. By this I mean dealing with everyday stuff and repetitive patterns. We argue about why our partner is late home from work again or how they seem to have two different sets of rules (one for their family and another one for ours). What we seldom manage to get to is how worried our partner is about losing his job or how our partner feels she never feels good enough around her Mother –in-law. Not only do we struggle to get to these conversations but we also struggle to understand the far reaching impact of the feelings underneath on both sides.

‘Shadows fill an empty heart
As love is fading, from all the things that we are
Are not saying, can we see beyond the scars
And make it to the dawn?’

One of the best parts of my job is when I can facilitate a view into the love hiding behind the hurt; when there are experiential moments when a couple can feel the full force of the caring they are longing for. Usually there are tears. Often there is surprise and relief. It’s these moments, fed by an understanding of the dynamics, values, fears and historical role modelling lurking below that provide the fuel to keep working.

‘The sun is breaking in your eyes
To start a new day
This broken heart can still survive
With a touch of your grace
Shadows fade into the light
I am by your side, where love will find you….’

Find the words. I can help.


Lyrics from the song What about now by Daughtry.

We don’t need more Good Sorts Jacinda


Today was a good day. Someone had my back.

Twenty minutes into a couples session I realized that there were some details that sounded familiar.

I paused and looked at the young man in the room. He smiled and said warmly,

“I called you two months ago on a dark day”.

I re-ran the call in my mind a little; his story had overflowed into the phone; his confusion and sadness palpable. I had answered his call just five minutes before my next client appointment and felt out of time but I had done my best. I told him things would get better and that there would be a way through and then I gave him a number. I told him that if they didn’t answer or couldn’t help him today he needed to call me back and I would find someone for him. I told him I trusted him to do that.

I knew I had to hand it on; the ‘it’ he was dealing with: the confusion and fear. Because I am not a super human. I have limits. But my heart sank as I did because the truth is our mental health system is in severe trouble. And people in real need get answering machines or get told the next appointment available is in 3 weeks. Real people. Sitting in the corner of their room clutching the phone and struggling to breathe.

So I said a little prayer. I prayed that the people at the end of that number would step in; that they would do their job and do it well. I prayed that they would have my back.

And my prayer was answered.

They answered the phone. They made it a priority to see him. And within a few hours he was sitting in front of someone who steadied the ground beneath his feet, normalized his fear and helped him plan his next move.

So here he was some weeks later, in my room, with his wife; seeking the specialty I offer (relationship counselling). They had some work to do to pull things together but they were on their way to better days; days filled with more certainty, trust and connection.

I’m not sure how it has become acceptable for Doctors to refer a patient for counselling – and 2 months later it still hasn’t been ‘processed’. I don’t know how these delays have become accepted as the norm with seemingly little fight to change it.

We don’t need 100 Good Sorts going above and beyond and burning themselves out to patch up the few people they can reach. We need a few thousand professionals (and more); Trained, confident, equipped, paid and receiving decent professional supervision. We need to get face to face with the people who need us within hours not months.

Today was a good day. Someone had my back. That’s what we mental health professional need.

Glue for your relationship

glue  /noun  /   
An adhesive substance used for sticking objects or materials together.
If I could manufacture relationship glue and sell it online, I’m sure I would be an overnight success story. I may even get to retire my imaginary magic wand!
And here’s the thing…….there is a glue for relationships. It’s not available in supermarkets or health food stores. Nor is it available in your favorite hardware outlet. But it is readily available wherever a human being exists.  And here are some examples of that glue in action:
Crossing the divide in a tense discussion and rubbing your partners neck (because he had complained about it earlier)
Saying the cheese toast ‘just hit the spot’ even though it was soggy.
Stopping and listening to your partners complaints about the traffic and his boss – even though your day was pretty horrendous too.
Getting up silently and loading the dishwasher, even though it’s not your turn (because she looks tired tonight)
Telling him you appreciate him putting the kids to bed (even though he didn’t do it quite the way you would have liked)
Saying she looks beautiful (even though she is running 20 minutes late for a night out)
Have you worked out what the glue is called yet?
Its called kindness.


It’s so underrated isn’t it? Being kind? But being kind can fix a host of ills. Being kind can build a bridge. Being kind can foster a connection that will weather irritations and ill matched values.

Being kind can turn tense discussions into resolutions just because you reached out – touched her hand/rubbed his neck/ told him he was appreciated/gave her a loving look etc

Kindness is communication. It says ‘I care’. I may not agree. But I care. And in the end. Isn’t that the thing we most want to hear?

When we are treated with kindness it fills us with warmth and gratitude and we feel blessed and we want to give some of that back……………and hey presto……..glue invisibly but with certainty pulls us closer together and tells us there is no other place we would rather be; we see the relationship as a soft place to fall.

Create some glue.


Case Study – Space to feel again

ryan-franco-263029As they walked in the room and hesitated; deciding where to sit, Jason and Sheila appeared awkward and disconnected. Sheila chose the single chair closest to the door. Jason waited for her to choose her seat before sitting himself alone on the double sofa. They created a picture that was to match their story.

Two months  prior, Sheila had asked Jason to move out of the home they had lived in for some 15 years. This had been a shock to him. Tears still welled in his eyes when he remembered  the afternoon of that conversation. As the tears welled Sheila sat unmoved as if she didn’t notice.

After some 15 years of marriage Sheila had had enough. Enough of Jasons refusal to get a better job, a better group of friends or better life goals. She was tired of being the breadwinner, the organiser and the dreamer.

Since he had moved out Jason had joined the gym and lost 6 kgs. He had applied for several new jobs and was short listed for two. He had started paying into the retirement fund at work and had sold the old car cluttering up their garage which had been waiting for some 5 years for him to ‘fix  it up’. It was clear Jason wanted Sheila back.

“I just can’t feel the way you want me to feel Jason”, said Sheila.

“I’m not asking you to. I’m just asking for a chance”, he woefully replied.

At the end of the first session I suggested they come separately to see me.

In our one on one session Sheila told me that she was not sure whether she wanted their marriage back or not and she was not sure what she needed in order to make the decision.

“He is pushing me away with all his want”, she exclaimed.

When I saw Jason he said he was confused by Sheila’s indifference. He wondered what that indifference really meant. He wasn’t sure he could hold out hope much longer. I could also see that Jason was sabotaging any chance of a relationship repair by incessantly texting Sheila and turning up unannounced with flowers or her favourite custard slice. He was growing desperate and frustrated and had started to get angry with her for ‘stringing him along’.

At the end of my session with Jason I asked him how he was showing Sheila his commitment.

“The flowers the calls, the lawn mowing, the changes I am making, the declarations I am making………..what more can she possibly want?”

“Have you asked ?” I replied.

I think that it is easy to show commitment when things are certain. When the ground beneath our feet is secure and when we know we are loved. It is so much more difficult to show it when we are not certain of the end result.

I was thinking that this was the perfect opportunity – a golden gift of an opportunity, for Jason to prove his commitment.

In the next session together Jason gathered his courage and asked Sheila what it was she really needed from him right now. And like magic – she told him.

In a session some 2 months later Sheila was able to tell Jason that she wanted their marriage back and that she missed him. It had been a long road for them both. Pure joy and relief radiated around the room. Jason had been able to deliver what she needed most; the space to feel again. 

Giving what feels almost impossible to give when your partner needs it is the most powerful statement of commitment we can give.

NB This is a fictional adaptation.